Monday, December 31, 2012

Class Warfare in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Silltoe

from here
There is a war coming. While a war between countries will grab the headlines, it is the war between the classes that is will do the most damage- because the lower classes are growing, the chasm between the bottom and the top is impenetrably deep, and the well-meaning middle class (because they want to avoid the war, or because they don't think war is really necessary) serve as tools of hegemony.

It's hard not to read Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner through the prism of our American fiscal cliff.

In story after story of this slim collection, the lower class Britons on the eve of the Second World War slouch from birth to death. They make terrible choices for lack of options across nine stories: robbery; a fight between a teacher and student; a man kindly assists his ex-wife in drinking herself to death; two boys beg, lie and steal to scrape together enough money to enjoy a fair; a man hangs himself with the help of a young boy; one man alleviates the misery of his life by beating his wife and children, while another exposes himself to little girls.

In the cruelest story of them all, "Uncle Ernest," the title character (a hard working upholsterer) finds joy in his hand-to-mouth existence by caring for two young girls. It's unclear if they needed his care: their mother has a job, and they go to school. When they first meet Ernest, they have the money for the bus ride home from a small cafe. Still, they accept his charity- he goes hungry and runs up debt to buy them tea and sweets. In kindness, he finds companionship and a hollow measure of happiness. The world, of course, punished him for that. A pair of coppers show up, responding to complaints or questions- some people thought the little girls were taking advantage of the old man's generosity. The police, acting on the best behalf of society, accuse him of untoward acts that have never crossed his mind, and they finally fling him into the street with orders to never contact the girls again. Uncle Ernest retreats to a bar, for the only escape society allows him.

This is how the world ends.

On both sides of our political divide, people are fighting for what they believe is best. I hold my beliefs because I think they are what would be best for the most people. I am sure that the senators and congressmen who are working against my desires believe they are striving for the same goal.

But the system is broken, badly. The wealthy have, over time, accumulated so many advantages that while it is possible for an American to move from the lower class to the middle class through ingenuity, perseverance and a little luck, the middle class is the peak of the summit.

As in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, we make choices every day, not because they are the best choices, but because they are the only ones we are allowed. There are too many people willing to work hard and believe that good fortune will come, too many coppers doing their duty, too many neighbors listening silently through the wall who are glad when the beating ends but who do nothing to stop it.

We cannot fix a broken system from within when millions of people are working to maintain the status quo because they believe it is in their best interest. World War II broke Great Britain; the Empire was bankrupt, and re-industrialization through the Marshall Plan took a backseat to the illusion of global power. In American history, confronted with a similar stratification in the 1890s, Americans pushed back, forcing major democratizing reforms on their government in favor of the majority and against the wealthy, powerful and well connected. With another 40 years of hindsight, will Americans look at the dawn of the 21st Century as the beginning or the end of the Second Gilded Age?

Book 50 of my book-a-week challenge.

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